Thursday, May 31, 2012
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A strong field gathers at Memorial

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[May 31, 2012]  DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) -- The players at the Memorial make it the strongest regular PGA Tour event of the year.

Muirfield Village has seven of the top 10 in the world, a list that includes Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker. There's also Masters champion Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year.

But not all of the big names are at their best when the tournament Jack Nicklaus created gets under way on Thursday.

McIlroy, who gave up the No. 1 ranking to Donald last week in what has become a game of musical chairs, is trying to remember what it's like to play golf on the weekend. For the first time in more than two years, he has missed the cut in back-to-back tournaments and blamed his lack of preparation.

"I just have to knuckle down and figure it out and get back to the way I was at the start of the year," McIlroy said.

Woods is mired in the worst stretch of results of his career. After winning at Bay Hill, he tied for 40th at the Masters, missed the cut at Quail Hollow and tied for 40th at The Players Championship. He is a four-time champion at the Memorial, and the way his season is going, anything can happen.

Watson arrived in Ohio with plenty of rust on his game, playing for only the second time since his win at Augusta National.

Stricker, the defending champion at the Memorial, missed the cut at The Players Championship to end his streak at 49, the longest on tour.

"It just doesn't seem as sharp for whatever reason," said Stricker, who has not seriously contended since winning the season-opener at Kapalua.

It's not all bad.

Donald is coming off a successful title defense at Wentworth, putting him back at No. 1 in the world. The U.S. Open is in two weeks at Olympic Club, another chance for Donald to win his first major and earn universal respect that only his peers seem to give him.

"I feel like I'm in a good spot," he said.

Woods figures to command the most attention, given his stature in the game over the last 15 years, along with his 14 majors. Should he win this week, Woods would join Nicklaus with 73 victories, second only to the 82 won by Sam Snead.

McIlroy, Stricker and to a lesser extent, Watson, are the most intriguing.

McIlroy had been on an amazing run since late last year, rarely finishing out of the top five. He was one shot out of the lead going into the Masters on the weekend, only to fall apart on the front nine Saturday and wind up in a tie for 40th. In his next tournament, he was in a three-man playoff at Quail Hollow won by Rickie Fowler. But he hasn't been the same since, missing the cut at The Players Championship and the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

"When you've went on a run when you've hardly finished outside the top five, and then all of a sudden two missed cuts, it's more of a shock than anything else," McIlroy said Wednesday. "Just a little bit surprising, and it's something I haven't really had to deal with in a while."

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Already under the microscope, the scrutiny was even greater after the missed cut at Wentworth. McIlroy tossed a 6-iron after a bad shot in the second round, and even though he was at the course the next day for a marathon practice session, he caused a small stir when he flew to Paris that evening to be with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, at the French Open.

McIlroy brought his swing coach, Michael Bannon, to America for an extended stretch of golf. Along with his U.S. Open title defense in two weeks in San Francisco, he added the St. Jude Classic in Memphis next week to his schedule.

"I just feel like I need more rounds," he said. "These two-day weeks aren't really that good for me."

Stricker had not had a weekend off since the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in 2010, so missing the cut at Sawgrass was a small shock to the system. And the biggest shock of all was that his putting has been holding him back. Stricker is revered as the best in golf with the flat stick.

"TPC, I just didn't really have anything," he said. "I hit the ball fine, just scoring clubs, around the green, putting ... my putting has been actually giving me some problems here and there. I don't feel like I'm that far off. I've been hitting a lot of good putts. They're just not going in. And I've been putting a lot of effort into that at home the last couple weeks trying to figure out what's been going on there, if anything.

"Sometimes you just go through periods of time where the ball doesn't go in."

This would be a good time for some of these players to pick up the pace. Not only is the U.S. Open two weeks away, they face a Muirfield Village course this week that is firm and fast from recent sunshine.

[Associated Press; By DOUG FERGUSON]

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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